Maija McManus

Coalition calls on Baker to recommit to clean energy

Maija McManus
Coalition calls on Baker to recommit to clean energy

GREATER SPRINGFIELD — After what many solar advocates are calling recent “assaults” on the industry, a coalition of solar organizations is joining forces to call on Gov. Charlie Baker to recommit to the state’s clean energy economy.

Nearly 15,000 full-time solar workers were employed by hundreds of local solar installation companies across the state last year. However, on Feb. 7, the Solar Foundation released a report noting that the number of state solar workers dropped by 21 percent – translating to 3,000 jobs – in 2017, which was the second largest decline of any state in the nation. The double-digit decline marks the second year in a row of solar job losses for Massachusetts. While the Commonwealth still ranks among the leading solar employers in the U.S., the report also highlighted that new residential solar installations decreased by half – from 23,000 to 10,000.

Six industry organizations and advocates – including the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Vote Solar, the Northeast Clean Energy Council (NECEC), the Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA), the Solar Energy Business Association of New England (SEBANE) and MassSolar – are now petitioning to the Baker administration to take stronger measures to protect the state’s solar industry.

“For years in the past, Massachusetts has been one of most consistently solar-supportive states. We’ve had great policies that have underscored how Massachusetts is a place you would want to start your solar business,” said Senior Director of the Northeast branch of Vote Solar Sean Garren. “But, recently, with the changes federally and locally, it’s become a very uncertain place to invest. People are less likely to hire new folks, they’re less likely to invest in a new office or expand to a new town or region. In an industry that relies on growth, that’s a real problem.”

The informal coalition attributes the decline in last year’s solar installation and employment numbers to a combination of factors, including:

National market trends: In the letter addressed to the governor, the advocates outline how uncertainty surrounding President Donald Trump’s actions on tariffs contributed to the job decline for 2017. The Trump administration recently slapped a 30 percent tax on imported solar panels and products. The SEIA estimates the move will cost 23,000 solar jobs nationally, and nearly 700 in Massachusetts.

Net metering caps: Massachusetts currently has a cap on the amount of solar that is eligible for net metering, which is a solar incentive that allows solar system owners to store energy in the electric grid and receive credit on future electric bills for excess energy produced by the system. The cap was placed on the state last year. While large-scale solar panel farms – and their beneficiaries – are most affected by the cap, a majority of state homeowners don’t have to worry about it. Single-phased systems under 10kW are exempt.  The coalition argues that the cap is stalling larger solar projects from being pursued. Businesses don’t know if they should invest in solar because they can no longer receive full net metering benefits, they said.

Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART): For the past seven years, Massachusetts solar owners have been able to earn Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs) for the energy produced by their systems. The owners receive certificates based on the amount of electricity being produced by their system, which they can then sell for a profit. Utilities buy SRECs to meet their renewable energy requirements. Net metering plays no role in this incentive. Currently, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) is in the process of transitioning away from SRECs, and moving toward a new incentive program called the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART). While still a production-based incentive, SMART guarantees a rate per kilowatt-hour of energy produced, instead of generating whole certificates to sell at market prices. The goal of the program is to create a long-term sustainable solar incentive program that promotes cost-effective solar development, according to the DOER. While the SMART program is expected to roll out in the summer of 2018, the coalition accused state lawmakers of a “longer-than-expected” development. Mark Durrenberger, from The Energy Miser, also conducted a study estimating that a typical homeowner going solar in 2018 will get $8,000 less from the state than with the SRECs in 2017. The coalition is encouraging the state to make sure it enables all sectors of the state’s solar industry to thrive with the new program.

In addition to the factors listed above, the coalition also addressed a new solar surcharge on Eversource customers. In the first month of 2018, state regulators rubber-stamped a new charge that will hike bills for future solar costumers of the Commonwealth’s largest utility.

“Utilities are trying to put fixed charges and change the ways in which people are compensated, they are trying to make sure that the money they used to receive [before solar] continues on some level,” said Gregory Garrison, president of Northeast Solar. “It’s a resistance by the utilities to change their business model to accommodate local energy production. They want to slow the advancement of solar because it represents a technology that is part of the future. Homeowners in the future will become their own producers of power, and that’s a big paradigm shift.”

Utilities argue that because transmission costs – for things like line maintenance, tree trimming and emergency crews – have traditionally been paid by the kilowatt-hour, solar customers aren’t contributing their fair share, he explained.

Northeast Solar, located in Hatfield, has witnessed several setbacks from the roadblocks – namely the net metering cap – mentioned by the coalition, said Garrison.

“Commercial lines of business has been completely off the cliff, we can’t install anyone because they can’t get the benefits of going solar,” he said. “We sell solar to make their businesses stronger – to make our economy stronger – but we only do that if it’s in the best interest of our clients, and now that’s not the case because they can no longer receive full net metering benefits.

Garrison was one of 15 signatures on a follow-up column, inspired by the coalition letter, that also calls on the governor to take action. The complimentary column echoed the same sentiments of the coalition’s letter.

Both the letter and the column ask the state to modify SMART, reverse the Eversource tax and lift the cap on net metering.  

Garren, from Vote Solar, said he is feeling hopeful about the outcome.

“The Legislature has shown a lot of interest in energy policy,” he said. “We know he wants to see this industry grow, but it’s going to take a level of leadership from legislative leaders and the governor to push forward with the bold action we’re hoping this letter will spur.”

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